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Egyptian slab serif

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James, you’ve been quite a type nerd the last couple of days. You think it’s contagious?

Nick, Nymph and Grot, huh?

Eventually, it settled on the slab-serif genre.

I think slab serif is the english name (yes, Watson). In finnish they’re known as ‘egyptienne’. What I mean is, slab serif and egyptian are synonyms, or what were you trying to say, Nick?

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For God’s sakes. Well, at least you inadvertently pointed to where you stole the image from.

Actually, I first came across it in another book, "London, A Great City" published by the Folio Society. Is scanning an image from a book and posting it on a web forum considered theft? I suppose I should have asked the Alfred Dunhill Museum for permission to reproduce their painting, but in reproducing low-res scans to illustrate a point in an online thread, I don't think people usually go to that length, so I'm just following general practice. Or do you think one should do better?

By the way, printers’ ink balls.


Speaking of Mr Johnston's book, I came across this quote in it, from Richard Austin's "Address to Printers", 1819, concerning the problems with the ultra fine details of modern type, "Besides this, in the drawing of the letters, the true shape and beauty are lost; and instead of consisting of circles, and arcs of circles, so agreeable to the eye, some of them have more the appearance of Egyptian characters than good roman letter."

Where did type founders of Austin's day get their knowledge of what an Egyptian character looked like? I would guess from Edmund Fry's "Pantographia", published in 1799 if I recall correctly, which attempted to show all the alphabets used by all languages around the world. So I wonder what the page(s) on Egyptian type look like in Fry's book?

slab serif and egyptian are synonyms,

That's always beeen my understanding. I named my slab-serif take on Bodoni "Egyptian" partly for that reason, as well as others, but most logically because the serifs don't look at all like slabs in the Light and Thin weights.

But for encompassing a variety of typefaces, rather than weights, "Slab" is more practical, which is no doubt why the FontBook uses it as a category, to include many hefty-serifed faces (eg for news text) that are not at all "Egyptian".

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James, you’ve been quite a type nerd the last couple of days. You think it’s contagious?

I've been a nerd a lot longer than the last couple of days. It's just that lately I've gone from other sorts of nerdness to being a type nerd. Unfortunately my nerdiness today has been limited to reading Leslie Cabarga's book, as I arrived at the Library of Congress only to find that the reading rooms are closed on weekends!

Anyway, Mr. Heller suggested that I contact Matthew Carter; if someone has Mr. Carter's email address would you please message it to me?

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Matthew Carter has responded. According to James Mosley in The Nymph and the Grot (Available from St. Bride) the term Egyptian was originally used for sans-serif faces; I think that this pretty much kills the theory that it resulted from use in Napoleonic texts as no typesetter would have used sans type for a serious book (if any book) at that time.

Unfortunately the closest copy of The Nymph and the Grot is in Baltimore, so I'll just order copy and wait for it to arrive.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I’m not sure I can follow that without blushing. In any case I have been reading Typophile Forum to learn, rather than to offer my opinions. (I do enough of that in my job.) But it’s true that having seen a recommendation that people should go out and get hold of The Nymph and the Grot (1999) I thought, first of all, that the book may not be so easy to get hold of (but don’t let me put anyone off buying it – sales help the St Bride Library). Secondly, that some interesting things about early sanserifs (or Egyptians) and slab-serifs were found after it was published – many of them by Justin Howes. If he had not died so shockingly suddenly a couple of years ago he might have contributed to this thread. Should have, for sure.

So I thought of doing so myself, and signed up – but then my piece got far too long to post, so I put it under the heading ‘The Nymph and the Grot, an update’ on the Typefoundry blog (http://typefoundry.blogspot.com/). That is where to find it, along with some other miscellaneous things. It won’t be the last word on the topic (I hope), but may answer some questions.

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Welcome James! Delighted that you are willing to share some of your deep knowledge of type history here.

Let me add that as well as your scholarship, I also find your opinions on type--such as your mention of the 'rather plain' character of Univers in your blog--quite interesting.

To me educated tastes, borne of long study, are very interesting, in spite of the fact that they will still differ greatly from one person to another.

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Wow – I think we can feel really privileged to have you on this thread, James! Thanks a lot for the link to your blog.

I am very happy to hear that Justin Howe’s research did not get lost with his untimely death. He was supposed to give a talk at the St Bride conference in 2004 about his research, but he was ill that day. A few weeks before his death, when he was still curator at the Type Museum in London, I visited the Type Museum. In the generous manner that was typical of him, he gave me a short presentation about the talk he wanted to give at St Bride – essentially the same information that you published now on your blog. Of course, in my stupidity, I didn’t write anything down, and when he died, I already thought this information was lost forever. Justin had also prepared some new illustrations for his talk which he showed me on his power book. I hope, one day you can publish these illustrations as well, in memory of Justin…

Here are some pictures of the type specimen and the matrices of Caslon Egyptian, taken by Justin. The type specimen and the matrices are at the Type Museum. If we compare the printed letters with the matrices, the newly added characters (described in the article on James Mosley’s blog) can be seen clearly.

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Thanks for the update, James.

Caslon's "Egyptian", it must be assumed, is not then an experiment that merely chops the serifs off a slab-serif style -- which seems to be the consensus in the general type histories -- it is a mature design, derived from many decades of development by architects, sign painters, cartographers and stone masons. Tombstones are another, clearly dated, source of 18th century sans lettering.

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"Caslon’s “Egyptian”, it must be assumed, is not then an experiment that merely chops the serifs off a slab-serif style"

No – that was the bright idea of the type historian A. F. Johnson, who dated the Figgins slab-serif 1815 (which is on the title page of the specimen) and the Caslon sanserif 1816. Therefore... But it helps to get outside the typefoundry and to look around a bit.

One of my favourite images is this one (which I put in the original Nymph & Grot), published in 1808, a project for a vast pyramid outside Portsmouth, the Royal Navy base, to commemorate Nelson at Trafalgar and Stuart at Maida (no, I had never heard of him either – but there is Maida Vale in London as well as Trafalgar Square). The pyramid makes an Egyptian connection, but the lettering was described as 'the earliest form of Roman character'.

I'm sorry this one never got built – but there are plenty of other examples of sanserifs before 1816, ususally conveying some idea of an early and 'primitive' form. Not unrelated to Tschichold's idea of the Grotesk as pure and basic, in some ways.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I am happy to have sparked up the Egyptian slab serif, thanks to my massive essay i did on serifs! *rolling eyes*. But it's nice to know you are learning new things everyday because a professional is never a professional as they learn someting new themselves everyday :D

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  • there are plenty of other examples of sanserifs before 1816, ususally conveying some idea of an early and ‘primitive’ form.

Here is one curious example, dated 1799, from a monument to Field-Marshal Rumyantsev-Zadunaisky in St. Petersburg. I don't think its style conveys an idea of an early and primitive form. Of course, this is not a real sans-serif, but it is not a serif either. And look at that super-tight letterspacing.

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That's a fine inscription, Maxim. My knowledge of Russian letterforms is minimal, but is it possible that these dense, narrow and hardly-seriffed letters are a slight echo of the old pre-Peter letters? In other words, a bit of national sentiment? (Or they might just relate to the narrow German roman caps that were often used.)

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That plaque doesn't look right. Surely its architect would have done a better job of configuring the plaque to accomodate the general's name.

Perhaps the monument was originally created for someone with a shorter name. (The fortunes of war...)

Another reason that the plaque looks like a revision is the naive quality of the lettering (note the "flipped" stress of De and A), compared to the sophistication of the other metalwork.

However, even if the plaque is later than the monument, it would be difficult to date without some form of historical documentation (such as a photo or engraving of the monument which showed the plaque).

At least it's not Trajan or Bembo.

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